“Was that a dog?” my husband asked. We had both seen it, a streak of black fur through the underbrush just behind our tent. 

“If it was, that would be big dog,” I replied. We heard the leaves rustle and watched as the animal raced through the campsites behind ours, hidden just enough to keep us guessing at its identity.

I pulled out camp chairs and unfolded them near the fire pit while my husband readied our cooking supplies. The kids were busy picking up sticks for kindling. I looked up when an unfamiliar voice boomed from the road.

“Have you seen my little friend run by?” The ranger’s eyes scanned behind us even as he waited for our response. He was flanked by four other uniformed rangers, and a large tranquilizer gun rested on his shoulder. I realized his “little friend” was the critter that had run by, and that critter was probably not a dog.

“It ran down that way,” I pointed to the last place we had seen it. The rangers took off, their heads bobbing as they ran through the campground in search of the bear, which soon came barreling back in our direction and clambered up a tree behind our tent.

My kids love to tell this story of the bear in our campsite.

It ranks pretty high among our national park memories, which include a double rainbow in Grand Canyon National Park, seeing bighorn sheep in Zion National Park, and hiking the sand dunes from Star Wars in Death Valley. 

A man and two kids hike across the white salt flats in Death Valley National ParkAs a military family, we have toured national parks on pit stops during cross-country moves. We have also spent long weekends visiting the parks that are short drives from our various homes. Whenever we are about to embark on a new national park adventure with the whole family, here some things I try to keep in mind:

Don’t forget the pass

Visiting National Parks is free for current U.S. military members, including Reserve and National Guard members. America the Beautiful passes for military personnel can be obtained in person when entering federal recreation sites. In 2020, the Military Veterans and Gold Star Family Free Access Program was launched, and entrance to National Parks is now free for all veterans and Gold Star families.

We always check for our pass before we pull out of the driveway. If we don’t have a current pass, we bring proper identification so we can get a pass at the park.

Set realistic expectations

When my husband and I bust out the park map and see all the hiking, historic sites, and scenic views that await us, it’s easy to get excited. Then we hear the cries for snacks from the back seat and get in a battle with a preschooler about whether or not shoes are necessary for hiking. We realize that we can continue with our ideal agenda, or we can adjust our expectations to better accommodate our kids.

We have learned from experience that when we adjust our expectations to fit the reality of having young kids, things tend to go more smoothly.

A child in a blue raincoat hikes the Appalachian Trail. It is muddy with green trees on either side.We aim to set realistic expectations by researching the parks ahead of time. We scope out hikes and check with park rangers if we have concerns about difficulty or current conditions. We recognize our own limits and remember that we might end up carrying tired kids if we push everyone too hard. We don’t over-plan our days, and we take plenty of breaks for water and snacks. If possible, we build some quiet/nap time into our day.

Setting realistic expectations for visiting national parks with kids might cause us to miss out on more strenuous hikes or sought-after panoramic views. But the odds of us being the people with the hangry, tired, screaming children on the side of the trail are greatly decreased (the odds of a hangry, tired, screaming mom on the side of the trail are also dramatically decreased).

Have fun

Our kids don’t love to hike as much as we do. When we are on longer hikes, we try to make it more fun by playing games like I Spy or creating a scavenger hunt as we go – e.g. Can you find five birds? How many bugs can you spot? Do you see anything shiny?

The Junior Ranger program is a must-do when visiting national parks with kids. Kids can complete an educational booklet to earn a badge and the supercool title of Junior Ranger. Sometimes booklets can be printed from the NPS website ahead of time. You can also get them at most NPS Visitor Centers, and they can be adapted for different ages. Our kids used their allowance to purchase Ranger hats on which they can display their badges, which are a great conversation starter at the parks.

Depending on the time of year and which park we are visiting, sometimes there are ranger-led hikes, educational activities, and even story times available.

A man and two kids walk a trail in Zion National Park
Hiking at Zion National Park

Pack like a pro

Several minutes into our first hike at Zion National Park, both of our big kids were complaining of being cold. The hiking trail was shaded, and the kids were shivering in the early morning shadows. I had packed sweatshirts for them before leaving the hotel that morning, but they were several miles away in shuttle bus parking lot. Oops. Our four-year-old may have hiked most of the trail wearing my nursing cover draped over him as a warm layer, and I was reminded to always pack layers.

We also make sure we bring other essentials like lots of water, snacks, sunscreen, sun hats, bug spray, and extra clothes. We bring plastic bags for carrying our trash and light rain coats if there’s any chance of rain. For littles in diapers, we bring more diapers than we think we will need and an entire pack of wipes. Baby wipes are the Swiss Army Knife of baby supplies. For babies and the littlest of hikers, we bring either a soft-structured baby carrier or a more heavy-duty hiking backpack carrier. The big kids have started to wear their own backpacks to help lighten our load. 

Keep a record

Each of our kids has a book in which they can record highlights from our trips. Their books have checklists so they can keep track of which parks they’ve visited. There’s also space to record hikes we complete, wildlife we see (bears: check!), and for park passport stamps/cancellations (cancellations are available at park gift shops). A fancy book isn’t necessary, and a blank notebook can be a great place for kids to journal about their time, draw pictures of what they see, and record anything exciting they want to remember later.

Visiting national parks with kids is a fun, inexpensive way for families to make memories, explore together, and learn through hands-on experiences. 

Ready to plan your next national park adventure? Find a park near you to start exploring, and check out this post for other great tips for traveling with kids.